VICTORIA — The first blip on the radar signalling a potentially new player in British Columbia politics occurred in the summer byelection to fill the seat vacated by former New Democrat premier John Horgan.

Of course, the NDP easily held the Langford-Juan de Fuca riding Horgan had represented for 18 years. But in second place was B.C. Conservative candidate Mike Harris, a local real estate agent, small business operator and journeyman carpenter.

The candidate for the Opposition BC United – formerly known as the B.C. Liberals – finished a distant fourth, ahead only of the Communist Party of B.C.'s candidate.

It’s been a banner year for B.C.’s long dormant Conservatives, who achieved official party status with Leader John Rustad and Abbotsford South MLA Bruce Banman in the legislature, both of whom were elected as B.C. Liberals before switching parties.

The Conservatives are now riding high in the polls – but can that translate into electoral success in 2024’s provincial election or will they serve instead to split the right-of-centre vote?

Four months after the Conservatives' strong byelection showing, Rustad put his first question in the legislature as party leader, calling on Premier David Eby to replace the government's Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity program in schools.

It rankled Eby, who accused Rustad of feeding fires of division and bringing a "culture war" to the province.

"Shame on him. Choose another question," said Eby to thunderous applause and a near unanimous all-party standing ovation, including from most of his former Liberal colleagues.

Undaunted, Rustad said he would continue to challenge the political status quo. "It’s very clear that we’re talking about a uniparty in this House," said the former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister.

Dormant B.C. Conservatives growing stronger ahead of 2024 vote. #bcpoli

Eby has continued to express disappointment with Conservative criticism of the SOGI program, saying last week the party is picking on vulnerable children, and school staff.

"It is entirely inappropriate of the Conservative Party of B.C. to be focused on trying to achieve political power by demonizing teachers and school librarians," he said last week at a news conference.

Recent polls suggest the B.C. Conservatives, who received less than two per cent of the vote in the 2020 election and did not win a seat, would finish second behind Eby's NDP if an election were held now.

Rustad, 60, became Conservative leader last March after being dumped from the BC United caucus in August 2022.

Banman, a former Abbotsford mayor, bolted from BC United last September, saying he was joining the Conservatives to be able to speak freely on issues of concern to his constituents.

The two-member caucus gave the B.C. Conservatives official party status. It marks the first time in 50 years two Conservatives have sat together in the legislature.

Born and raised in Prince George, Rustad spent more than 20 years in the forest industry before entering politics. He was first elected in the Nechako Lakes riding in north-central B.C. in 2005.

He and his wife, Kim, live in the rural community of Cluculz Lake, about 40 kilometres west of Prince George.

Rustad has said he is building a broad coalition of voters and the the party will serve as an alternative to both the New Democrats and BC United.

The B.C. Conservatives have shaken the political landscape, said Prof. David Black, a political communications expert at Victoria's Royal Roads University. But the question is whether they are riding the slipstream of federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre or B.C. voters are really looking for something new.

"It's a fascinating development that potentially means a realignment of what we take to be historically typical of B.C. politics," he said.

"Apart from the obvious fact of the federal Conservative party's popularity currently and the conservative populist trend in general buoying the Conservative Party of B.C., it may serve to overturn everything we thought we knew about this province's party preference and ideological composition."

The next B.C. election scheduled for fall 2024 will reflect "whether there is a lasting structural change in the making here or if this is a temporary development tied to the federal Conservative Party and the Poilievre trend," he said.

Black agreed the Langford-Juan de Fuca byelection was a signal of the shift but said the Western Communities area outside Victoria has a history of electing right-wing politicians federally, citing Reform Party MP Keith Martin who represented the riding in the early 1990s before bolting to the federal Liberals.

"It was, among the south (Vancouver Island) ridings, the likely most receptive to a Conservative Party of B.C. revival from decades of being an also-ran, moribund force in the province," he said.

"The fact of Horgan's seat and the strength of the B.C. NDP in that riding had somewhat hidden from view that the Conservative Party of B.C. had considerable room to grow there when conditions were optimal, given a right-leaning history in that community."

Rustad said in a year-end news conference last week that voters are looking for a new voice and approach in B.C. politics after a combined 32 years of B.C. Liberal and NDP governments.

"It shouldn't be a choice between NDP and NDP-lite," he said. "Clearly, what has been done isn't working and people are looking for change and something different, and that's what we're providing."

Rustad, who has been called a climate change denier by critics, said climate change is real but people in B.C. should not be paying a carbon tax in an attempt "to change the weather."

He has promised to dump B.C.'s carbon tax, a policy he supported in 2008 when it was introduced by the B.C. Liberal government he was part of. It was North America's first carbon tax.

"The carbon tax has failed in doing meaningful (emissions) reductions," he said.

Rustad says people in B.C. are paying carbon tax worth two Costco roast chickens every time they fill up with gas – about $16 – echoing a U.S. Depression-era political slogan promising a chicken in every pot.

He shrugged off the suggestion the B.C. Conservatives could be riding the Poilievre wave.

"There's obviously some overlap between the federal Conservatives and us because of the name but we have no affiliation with the federal Conservatives," said Rustad. "I think the voters in this province are smart and they can figure out in terms of who's who."

But he also indicated the door is open for talks with BC United before the next election.

Some political operatives and members of the business community have suggested a merger to prevent a right-leaning vote split, but there have been no formal talks, Rustad said.

"Of course we want to make sure we're providing the best opportunity for a government to take on the NDP," he said. "But we are not prepared to compromise who we are and why we're connecting to the people of this province."

Rustad, described the fall sitting at the legislature as a coming out party of sorts for the B.C. Conservatives.

He said he's pleased at the party's growing profile but is even more satisfied at being able to force the NDP to show what he says are its true colours.

He cited the NDP using their majority in the legislature this fall to ensure passage of a series of housing-related laws with minimal debate.

"I'll be blunt," said Rustad. "When socialists can't get things done, they turn to an authoritarian approach. (Eby) has turned more and more to just dictating from Victoria what should be done in communities across this province."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 12, 2023.

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